By Jason McKeown (charts by Alex Scott)
Here we go again. Another managerial change at Bradford City, with the news that Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars have been removed from their position as joint managers.
The former under-18s coaches have been offered the chance to return to their previous posts, with the City CEO Ryan Sparks stating, “We feel, at this point, we need more experience to take us forward into the summer and next season which, for us, is a hugely significant one.” Meanwhile their replacement is seemingly already lined up and will be announced shortly.
After overseeing a miserable run of one point from the last seven games, and with the Bantams finishing in their worst league position since 2012, there will be few gasps of shock. But this constant turnover of managers is getting pretty wearisome.
The reign of Trueman and Sellars has lasted just 147 days. Stuart McCall before them managed 314 days before being sacked, Gary Bowyer before him 336 days, David Hopkin 174 days, Michael Collins 78 days and Simon Grayson 86 days.
It’s almost too cruel to do this, but Phil Parkinson took charge of the Bantams for 1,757 days. Even McCall’s second spell, after Parkinson quit, lasted 597 days. The average tenure of a Bradford City manager since then is just 189 days. Or just over six months.
At that average rate, we’ll end up appointing 10 different managers over the same timeframe that Parkinson delivered such amazing success.
It’s a shocking state of affairs.
Just like McCall last December, Bowyer last February, Hopkin the year before and Collins and Grayson the year before that, there are many good reasons why Trueman and Sellars had to be stood down. The managerial pair performed heroics lifting the Bantams clear of the relegation zone, but the end of season collapse in form has been utterly dismal. The pair looked short of ideas of how to address the slump. They must have been as desperate as anyone for the season to end, as it became a damage limitation exercise.
In a matter of weeks, they’d seen the groundswell of warm wishes and high regard disappear, as a socially distant Bradford City fanbase turned on them. Frustration that an unexpected shot at the play offs wasn’t taken has been understandably high. And even though Trueman and Sellars will argue, with some justification, that the late hopes of a promotion push represented an overachievement on their initial remit, the rise of Bolton from a similarly poor league position showed what had been possible.
Trueman and Sellars deserve credit for a lot of things. When they took charge the Bantams last December, the team had lost six games in a row and the only reason they weren’t in the relegation zone was because of a slightly less worse goal difference. Trueman and Sellars instantly introduced a more pragmatic approach, setting City up so they were hard to break down. The rot was stopped with a 1-1 draw at Crawley, where the home side were restricted to zero shots on target (their goal courtesy of Harry Pritchard heading into his own net).
That draw proved a springboard to three straight victories where City defended deep; the back four protected brilliantly by the deployment of two holding midfielders in Levi Sutton and Elliot Watt. City were clinical in front of goal, and by the turn of the year the Bantams had climbed five places up the table and increased the gap on the bottom two to a healthy seven points. The hunt for an external manager was put on hold, as they went from caretakers to interim.
After a long break due to bad weather and Covid outbreaks hitting opposition sides, City carried on where they left off. A draw at eventually promoted Cambridge, followed by back to back wins over relegation rivals Southend and Barrow. Trueman and Sellars suffered a first defeat at Exeter, but the team responded with five straight wins. Midway through that brilliant run Sparks appointed them on 15-month deals.
The fifth win in that run – a 1-0 success over Mansfield – took City to 10th and just three points off the play offs, with 16 games to go. The Bantams failed to push on, going winless in five. But when they bounced back to pick up 10 points from a possible 12, the gap to the play offs was again three points. Relegation concerns were over, it was surely the opportunity go for it.
That was the point where it all went wrong. City were surprisingly beaten 2-0 at home to the club, Crawley, who Trueman and Sellars’ adventure had begun against. They never recovered from an uninspiring night, spiralling to defeats against Harrogate, Tranmere, Port Vale, Salford and Morecambe. A dismal 0-0 draw at home to Scunthorpe was no better.
The problem for Trueman and Sellars was the limitations of their management style had become painfully clear. Trueman and Sellars’ 4-2-3-1 was absolutely the perfect anecdote in rescuing the club from relegation trouble when they took over. When confidence was low and it needed everyone to dig deep, playing such a defensive, safety first style of football made sense and worked well.
But they couldn’t build on that. They couldn’t find a way to let the handbrake off, take more risk and demonstrate some flair. City never became a team that opposition sides would have worried about containing. And it didn’t take long for other managers to work out how to counter the 4-2-3-1.
When in January and February the wins kept coming, the cautious style of football was justified by the results. Even though – as we at WOAP regularly highlighted – the underlying facts and figures behind performances suggested the run was not sustainable. Trueman and Sellars had tried to over-manage the fine margins by making sure City didn’t concede many chances, even to the detriment that the team didn’t create much at the other end.
They relied on the forward players being clinical at taking the limited opportunities on goal that occurred, something which – thanks to the form of Andy Cook in particular – proved successful for a time. After the Harrogate defeat, Mark Trueman talked about how the chances they created a few weeks ago had been going in but now they weren’t. But when you create so few chances, you can’t afford a bit of bad luck.
Ultimately, when more was needed, when greater risk could be afforded to be taken to achieve bigger rewards, Trueman and Sellars lacked the ability and confidence to take the team forwards. There is some argument to say that they didn’t have the players needed to play a more expansive way. But can the pair really say they got the most out of the squad at their disposal?
It’s been a time when defensive players have fared better – Paudie and Anthony O’Connor, Niall Canavan, Levi Sutton, Connor Wood, Elliot Watt (playing deep) and Finn Cousin-Dawson – but aside from Callum Cooke and Andy Cook, which forward players have done well?
Charles Vernam has admitted himself that City are yet to see the best of him, but in his defence he has not played in the wide left position where he did so well at Grimsby Town. Oli Crankshaw has struggled to make an impact, and Gareth Evans and Billy Clarke have not fitted into the roles they were asked to play in the system. Danny Rowe decided he’d prefer to play non league football.
In 23 of the 30 matches the pair have been in charge, City have scored just one goal or failed to score.
Relieving Trueman and Sellars of their duties now is a difficult one. But they’ve not shown an aptitude to improve City beyond a very basic, defensive style of football. And it hasn’t been entertaining to watch. The danger of keeping them on was not that they wouldn’t try to address this over the summer, but that a further lack of success would result in a manager change by autumn anyway, with the possibility of another season wasted.
It’s a really tough call. But weighing all things up, it is the right one.
Nevertheless, we cannot go on like this. City’s reputation in the game can hardly be enhanced by this constant turnover of managers. Trueman and Sellars were given 15-month deals, but only got to serve three months of it. McCall was offered a contract extension, but was sacked three weeks later.
It doesn’t look great, and if you’re an out of work manager looking for your next club, what reason is there to go to Valley Parade if you can afford to be choosy, when the last six managers the club has employed didn’t even last 12 months?
This is not a criticism of Sparks, as the problem pre-dates even his arrival at the club three years ago. Indeed, the following chart illustrates just what a historic issue this is at Bradford City. It shows the length of time each Bradford City manager stayed in the job since World War II, with the red line indicating which managers lasted more than three years (above the red line).
More recently, Phil Parkinson is the only manager – since Trevor Cherry left in 1987 – to have reached the three-year mark as City boss.
If City were a habitually successful club, like a Watford or Swansea, such turnover wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s hard to look at these charts and see anything but a list of mistakes that the owner/chairman/CEO of the day thought could be fixed by changing managers, only for that to not prove the case more often than not. 13 managers in 17 years of languishing in the bottom two divisions. A lot of dice rolling with little reward.
The phrasing of the statement announcing Trueman and Sellar stepping down strongly suggests a replacement is waiting in the wings. And that is great news of course. The club can hardly risk a repeat of the summer of 2018, where a search for a new manager took weeks and became farcical. The excitement that the new guy should hopefully generate will be a big boost going into the close season, when there are season tickets to sell to a demoralised fanbase.
But the bigger issue remains. At Bradford City, we need to find a long-term plan to revive this football club. And it has to be a plan we are prepared to stick to, even if there are short-term bumps in the road. We cannot keep going down this road of sacking managers and starting all over again. We’ve got to make the right decisions, and be confident they are the right decisions even during difficult moments.
There will be many measurements to gauge how successful Sparks and Bradford City prove with this summer’s plans to enhance the club – not least the league position in May 2022. But if, in 12 months, the manager who will be shortly unveiled is also still at Valley Parade, it will suggest – more than anything else – that we found a plan we had the conviction to stand by.